It was a Sunday evening to remember 30 years ago on this date: May 21st, 1989. Unbeaten middleweight power-puncher Nigel Benn, perfect at 22-0 with all 22 wins coming well inside the distance, met countryman Michael Watson, who was 21-1(17) at the time; the loss coming against James Cook, the draw against Israel Cole.
Inside the purposely erected “Super Tent,” Benn attempted to defend his Commonwealth title, retain his unbeaten record and move into the word’s top-10. Watson, the betting underdog, was convinced his combination of superior boxing skill, experience and savvy would prove too much for Benn’s raw power and sheer aggression.
A sold-out Finsbury Park crowd settled in to witness what was assumed by all to be a great one. Live on ITV in the UK and also going out on television in the US, the fight turned out to be a classic Boxer Vs. Puncher affair – brains against brawn.
Benn, sporting a new ponytail hairdo (he had reportedly spent a good few hours sat in the barber’s chair ahead of this, his planned breakthrough fight, and he doubtless wanted to look good) came out blazing at Watson. “The Force,” as Watson was known, had wasted no time treating himself to any such grooming, instead remaining in the gym putting in every ounce of his time getting ready for his own aimed for arrival in the world rankings.
It was hot and heavy for Watson early on, Benn relentlessly slinging leather. Watson, his hands cupped by the sides of his head, boxed and moved, at times played a little rope-a-dope and never lost a single split second of his tunnel vision concentration. Crucially, Watson also fired back as Benn launched his wicked hooks, refusing to be overwhelmed. It was an incredible pace and already, by the third-round, Benn was running out of ideas and possibly stamina.
Watson, who had thrown and landed some superb counter-shots, was unable to relax for a moment, yet Benn was using up an enormous amount of energy and he was getting precious little for it in return. The drama reached fever-pitch in the fourth, as Watson drove Benn across the ring into the ropes. His hands down, taking punches, Benn than came whipping back with hard shots of his own. The noise was deafening, even on TV, let alone what it must have been like inside the red-hot Super Tent, and as commentator Reg Gutteridge said, no-one was sure how badly Benn had been hurt – had he been playing possum?
The fifth-round gave us our answer, as Watson, snapping Benn’s head back with shot after shot, saw his rival voluntarily move backwards. Watson now had the upper hand as Benn, unsteady in his movements, was open-mouthed and clearly feeling the insane pace he himself had set. Benn was still firing out shots, but Watson could see them coming and his own return shots were flowing, the effort of pumping them out far less strenuous compared to the bite-down fury Benn was displaying. Benn, a victim of the sheer belief he had in his punching power, had no plan-B and Watson knew it.
In the sixth, a shot to the face forced Benn to turn his back on Watson – “a perfect punch!” bellowed co-commentator Jim Watt, who perhaps felt Benn might be on the urge of quitting. Instead, the punch had unintentionally caught Benn in the eye. Benn then gave it one last effort, firing out some rights that were blocked, but seconds later, the sand in his hourglass sifting away, Benn was decked by a stiff jab.
“Oh, he’s gone,” Gutteridge said, as Benn fell, almost in slow-motion. At the time, more than a few fans and experts felt Benn, having been so ruthlessly exposed, might have seen his thrilling and promising career come to a rapid end. Instead, “The Dark Destroyer” was able to relocate to America and then come back and achieve greatness.
Watson, tragically, saw his own career end after his ill-fated second fight with Chris Eubank. But on this night three decades ago, Watson was the middleweight king of British boxing.